By using the Dogslife website to enter data, we were able to overcome the logistical and cost problems of repeatedly contacting thousands of dog owners, and thus made the longitudinal study of canine health feasible.
Dr Dylan Clements
Organised in conjunction with The Kennel Club
, an online project to investigate canine health has been set up by veterinary specialists from the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies
and The Roslin Institute
, both of which are part of the University of Edinburgh
. All owners of Kennel Club-registered Labrador Retrievers born after 1st
January 2010 were invited to register their dogs, with over 1400 being enrolled in the first year.
The study is hopefully the first paper of many to report the project’s findings, and is published in BioMed Central's open access journal BMC Veterinary Research.
Dr Dylan Clements, Senior Lecturer in Small Animal Orthopaedics at The Roslin Institute and the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies, is lead author of the paper. He was able to explain to ScienceOmega.com
how Dogslife may contribute to our understanding of the health of Labrador Retrievers and dogs in general. Dr Clements began by elaborating on the necessity and usefulness of a study following dogs throughout their lives.
"Longitudinal studies are the most robust method for detecting causal relationships such as the association of a particular diet or exercise regime with the development of a particular disease because they allow the repeated evaluation of each individual over time," he said. "They have rarely been performed before in dogs, because they are expensive and labour intensive to perform."
Until now studies have relied on information from referral centres, and so next to nothing is known about the health problems that are not considered serious enough by an owner to warrant a trip to the vet. Extensive longitudinal studies such as this are very valuable, as has been demonstrated by similar long-term research on human health.
"Many of the major ‘risk factors’ for diseases in people have been identified through the longitudinal studies of large populations, as in the associations of diet, smoking and lack of exercise with heart disease," Dr Clements pointed out. "By using the Dogslife website to enter data, we were able to overcome the logistical and cost problems of repeatedly contacting thousands of dog owners, and thus made the longitudinal study of canine health feasible."
Labrador Retrievers were chosen as they are the most popular pedigree dog breed registered with the Kennel Club in the UK, and thus it was anticipated that they were most likely to provide the largest cohort for the project.
"Because of their popularity, we already know a little bit about the types of disease they can develop, such as osteoarthritis, diabetes and cancer," he added. "The website and database were designed so that we can easily add other breeds, which we would be delighted to do if we can obtain the funding."
A number of challenges have been encountered in setting up the project, not least revolving around securing and maintaining active membership.
"The major problem in recruitment is simply making people aware of the project," Dr Clements said. "If people had consented to receiving postal or e-mail communications from the Kennel Club, we were much more likely to be able to recruit them. Retention is a major challenge, as our members are busy and enter data into the project entirely for altruistic reasons.
"Ultimately, most people need some form of reminder to continue to actively participate, and by using an automated e-mail system and employing a secretary to call owners to remind them to enter data we were able to obtain good retention figures. We are extremely grateful for the dedication of the members participating in the project for their time and help in entering data."
In health terms, the data collected so far has shown that the majority (80 per cent) of dogs are expected to develop some form of illness in their first year of life, and that approximately half of them will require veterinary attention. Unsurprisingly, gastrointestinal problems such as vomiting and diarrhoea were the most common illnesses reported, according to Dr Clements.
"We are in the process of looking at the potential risk factors, including diet, environment and exercise, which contribute to these illnesses."
The experts behind Dogslife hope, with the help of the project members, to identify risk factors for the illnesses reported in participating dogs, such as the amount or type of activity which might be associated with particular types of lameness, or diets which might be associated with different types of gastrointestinal disease.
"If these are found, then we can give robust advice on how to prevent such diseases in dogs in the future."
If you own a KC-registered Labrador born after 1st January 2010, you can enrol to join the study here